Five-lined skinks

Anytime I am weeding, cultivating, or mulching I frequently come across a five-lined skink, a common lizard in our area. They are also called blue-tailed skinks for the bright blue tail sported by juveniles (shown below). As they grow and age, the pattern becomes less conspicuous; the stripes darken, the body lightens, and the tail turns gray. This skink grows to anywhere from 5 to 8-1/2 inches in length.

Active foragers that feed on crickets, flies, grasshoppers, grubs, beetles, snails, ants and spiders, skinks keep garden pests under control and help to maintain a healthy ecological balance. We frequently find them in our compost pile where they are welcome to anything they can find to eat — a fair exchange for all the garden pests they consume.

Skinks prefer moist, partially-wooded habitat that provides ample cover, as well as open areas to bask in the sun. The female lays eggs between the middle of May and July in a small cavity in leaf litter or beneath a rotting log, stump, board, loose bark, rock, or in an abandoned rodent burrow.

A fascinating fact about skinks (and some other lizards) is their ability to evade predators including snakes, crows, hawks, shrews, moles, opossums, skunks, raccoons and domestic cats by losing all or a portion of their tail when grabbed. Skinks are usually able to escape their predators that are distracted as the wriggling tail continues to twitch.

Offering a diversity of habitat enables us to attract many different kinds of wildlife, and skinks are always welcome!


Tiny things

Some of the most fascinating things in nature are so tiny they could easily be overlooked.

Take pavement ants, for instance. The common name comes from the fact that colonies of pavement ants usually make their homes in the cracks of pavement. Here on the farm, these ants nest in the soil where they dig down and push out the dirt, producing small mounts on the surface characterized by a “dirt crater” at the opening.

The fascinating thing is that these ants can tell when a big storm is coming. To keep the rain runoff from flooding their nests, they build up the walls much higher than normal. I had read this a while back, and checked the mounds after almost a week of rain where we got a whopping total of 6-1/2 inches(!!) Sure enough, all of the ant mounds were built higher.

A 2010 article in the Journal of Neurophysiology reports an almost unbelievable sensitivity in ant antennae that allows them to sense minute changes in temperature and humidity at 0.2 second time intervals. This would certainly assist the ants in detecting looming weather fronts. Humans can ‘smell’ rain, and we can detect gross temperature changes that almost always accompany rain, but to be able to detect humidity and micro-scale temperature changes would give the ants a real advantage in forecasting.

As a naturalist, I need to always remember to slow down so as not to miss the tiny miracles!

Another brood of phoebes leaves the nest

For the fourth year in a row, a pair of Eastern Phoebes nested on our porch and successfully fledged their young. I took this picture of the four nestlings yesterday (only three are visible in this picture), thinking it would be a couple more days before the big event, but they were all gone by the time we got up this morning.

In Virginia, phoebes generally raise two broods per season. Unlike most birds, they frequently return to nest where they were successful in raising their young the previous year.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “the Eastern Phoebe is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes.” They go on to say even members of a mated pair do not spend much time together; they may roost together early in pair formation, but even during egg laying the female frequently chases the male away from her.” In the case of our pair, however, I did see the male hanging around a lot during the day guarding the nest, and several times bringing food to the nestlings.

It is interesting to me that the phoebes, like bluebirds, wrens, and swallows, seem to give up their fear of humans and nest close to people for the few weeks it takes to raise their young. I see it as a sort of insurance policy to protect their nest. I remember reading somewhere that about a third of all eggs in the wild get eaten by nest robbers before they hatch. So the phoebes are very smart to nest on our porch, where the only predators are black snakes, and the dogs do a pretty good job of keeping them away!



Bluebirds fledged!

I wasn’t feeling well yesterday and spent the afternoon in bed. Looking out the bedroom window, I had a close up view of the bluebird nest box on the porch. For the last couple of weeks the parents had been taking turns all day long bringing moths and other insects to feed their young, but as I watched this day, the activity had stopped.

The parents were intentionally not feeding them so they would be hungry enough to come out of the box. Today was the day they would leave the nest! From a nearby tree, the female kept repeating her call, telling her babies to come out and she would feed them. The male kept flying past the nest box, encouraging them to come out.

As I watched, I saw two nestlings slowly make their way to the edge of the box and stare out at the world around them. It must have been quite scary, but their mother kept calling to encourage them. It appeared at one point as if they were jostling each other, each trying to get the other one to make the first move!

Then suddenly, one of the nestlings flew out of the box and floated gently to the ground below. Seconds later, the other one flew out of the box and landed nearby. Immediately, they began plaintively calling to their parents, begging for food. Mama bluebird flew to them and encouraged them to fly into the woods with her where she would feed them and they would be safe.

I felt so fortunate to watch the young birds summon the courage to leave the nest and venture out into the world, and I was happy for the parents who had done such a great job raising them.


The honey bees are all over the black locust blooms

Years ago, we decided to let our farm fields grow up to create more habitat diversity for wildlife. This process, called succession, is the natural replacement of plant or animal species in an area over time. In the last six years, our fields have been transformed from overgrown pastureland by the growth of shrubs and young trees, dominated by autumn olive, red cedar, tulip poplar, and black locust.

Black locust is native to the Southern Appalachians, and grows best in bright sunlight and prefers dry limestone soil. It spreads (prodigiously) by underground shoots or suckers, which contribute to its weedy character. The flowers, which open in May (in southwest Virginia) for only 7 to 10 days, appear as large, intensely fragrant white clusters. The locust blossoms are at their peak right now, pulling in the honey bees that return time and time again throughout the day to capitalize on this abundant food source.

Black locust trees in bloom next to our bee hives

Our honey bees are taking full advantage of this window of opportunity. The abundance of black locust makes it a major source of nectar for our bees, producing a light-colored honey with a floral, fruity, delicate flavor. Black locust-sourced honey remains liquid and does not crystallize easily due to its high fructose content.

We’re about to finish up the last jar of last year’s honey. Can’t wait until Bill harvests this spring’s honey!

Fox are nothing if not persistent

A red fox has been hanging around the farm since mid-March, which is a long time for a predator that tends to stay on the move, usually roaming a home territory of two to three square miles. It’s been our experience that a fox will stay for a few days, then move on. I suspect the reason she’s still here is that she has young stashed in a den somewhere, which means she has six to eight extra mouths to feed.

Red fox are very common in North America. There are 47 different sub-species of red fox globally, and their color can vary widely, but no matter the color, members of this species always have the signature white tip on their tail. The one we’re seeing now has a lot more gray than the one pictured below (courtesy of the Fish and Wildlife Service). Their bushy tail helps with balance and keeping them warm.


Photo courtesy Ronald Laubenstein, U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

I got a good look at our visitor one day while watching her play with a vole or a mouse in our orchard. She’s a beautiful, healthy-looking specimen. I took a shot at her with a pistol, aiming over her head, to scare her off, but it didn’t scare her enough to keep her away. She is still coming back throughout the day, desperately hoping that the chickens have somehow escaped from their run and she can choose the fattest one to take home to her kits!

She will eventually exhaust the food supply here, and her offspring will be old enough to move on. When that day comes, we can let the chickens out again to free range — at least until the next predator comes along!

Our shyest visitor

Today I spotted a woodpecker that we often hear around the farm, but seldom see. We have both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, as well as Red-bellied Woodpeckers, that visit our suet feeders in winter, but the most elusive member of the woodpecker family prefers to stay concealed in the woods. The Pileated Woodpecker is so shy that if you do happen to catch a glimpse of it as it scales the tree trunks looking for insects, it will quickly disappear from sight by moving to the opposite side of the tree. I was lucky and got a couple of seconds to snap this picture (believe me, I have taken many pictures where all I got was a tree trunk or a shot of wings as it flew away!)

Pileated woodpecker4.2017

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Pileated Woodpecker is one of the biggest, most striking forest birds on the continent. Look (and listen) for this crow-sized bird whacking at dead trees and fallen logs in search of their main prey, carpenter ants. Their excavations leave unique rectangular holes in the wood, which provide crucial shelter to many other species including swifts, owls, ducks, bats, and pine martens.


The Pileated’s primary food is ants, supplemented by woodboring beetle larvae, termites, and other insects such as flies, spruce budworm, caterpillars, cockroaches, and grasshoppers. They also eat wild fruits and nuts, including greenbrier, hackberry, sassafrass, blackberries, sumac berries, poison ivy, holly, dogwood, persimmon, and elderberry. In some diet studies, ants made up 40 percent of the pileated diet, and up to 97 percent in some individuals.

If you have dead or dying trees on your property, consider leaving them alone as they may attract Pileated Woodpeckers (as well as other woodpeckers, nuthatches, and other insect-loving birds) to forage, roost, or even nest in them. We have a lot of dead standing hemlocks next to the creek that were attacked by an invasive hemlock-eating pest that came here from Japan. The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid kills hemlocks by sucking the nutrients from the tree, killing it in as little as 3 to 5 years.

Pileateds are quite vocal, typically making a high, clear, series of piping calls lasting several seconds. The loud call is sometimes described as sounding like a far-carrying laugh. What else would you expect from this flamboyant, exotic-looking bird!